Can you imagine a more proper symbol for the breathtaking city of Singapore than a lion rising from the sea? That’s why the Merlion, the blending of “mer”, representing the sea, and “lion”, is perfectly apt for this fearless metropolis that sprung from its humble origins as a fishing village. Today, it tempts visitors with an unmatched vibrancy and world renowned architecture. With a bewildering array of tempting sights, it showcases dazzling buildings with cutting-edge design, lush green parks, and an astonishing array of food offerings. And that is before we get to one of the most impressive assortments of shopping in the world. The challenge to the visitor is, where to start? Let’s look at four Singapore daytime must-dos.
We start – whether on a visit of one day, or one week – in the Marina Bay area. There are many hotel choices here for the discriminating traveler, from the Ritz-Carlton, Conrad, Pan-Pacific, the historic Fullerton and Raffles, to the architecturally iconic Marina Bay Sands. So the logical place to begin is literally out your front door.
Gardens By the Bay
Gardens By the Bay is a 250 acre development on reclaimed land in the heart of the city. It features three main attractions. We will visit one stunner, the Supertree Grove, in a later blog post. For now, we will start our journey of discovery in the glass-enclosed Flower Dome and Cloud Forest.
Shimmering like two molten, misshapen marbles, these two column-less conservatories glisten on the banks of the Marina Bay complex. They house two completely different eco-systems, covering three and two acres, respectively. The Flower Dome is the world’s largest glass greenhouse, standing 125’ high. Flowers and greenery native to regions far from Singapore thrive in a closed environment perfectly matched to their homes.
By creating a mild, dry climate, the eco-systems of areas such as California, Australia, the Mediterranean and South Africa are grouped together in eight gardens. It is easy to think you have been transported to any of those places, so complete is the illusion. Seasonal flower displays blend seamlessly with 1,000-year-old olive trees and cacti. It is an amazing display.
The first sight you see upon entering the adjacent Cloud Forest is a plant covered mountain that seems to have been lifted intact from the movie, Avatar. This eight story vegetation covered mountain features the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, crashing right at your feet as you enter. It authentically replicates tropical highlands between 3,300 and 9,800’ in mountain areas of South East Asia and Middle and South America.
An internal elevator whisks you to the peak of the mountain. After exiting on the top level, you enter a mossy, fern-y “lost world” garden. The path down alternates between the inside of the mountain, and a series of skyways encircling it. This journey brings you close to the lush plants covering the mountain, including bromeliads, anthuriums, orchids and a wide variety of ferns and mosses. The open walkways also give spectacular views of the city and other attractions including the Sands hotel, the Supertree Grove, and our next stop – the Singapore Flyer.
We leave the Gardens, headed across the water to that enormous Ferris wheel in the distance. Walk along the bay to the Helix Bridge. Cross the water, enjoying the view of the skyline. Head right back along the water to The Flyer, Singapore’s version of the London Eye. Standing almost 550’ tall, it is the world’s second largest observation wheel, surpassed by Las Vegas’ High Roller by only nine feet.
The entire rotation takes about thirty minutes inside one of 28 climate controlled glass pods. The pods are spacious, with a seating capacity of 28, but rarely packed to capacity. It offers a fantastic 360-degree view of Marina Bay, the Formula 1 track, and the city’s unique skyline.
On a clear day, it is possible to see as far as neighboring Malaysia and even the verdant landscapes of Indonesia across Singapore Strait. But what the Flyer does is present a panoramic view of this amazing city, allowing you to appreciate what Singapore has accomplished in the fifty years since its creation. It is the model city for the world, and is on full display from your glass enclosed pod.
After your ride, head left on Raffles Ave, under the ECP expressway, and turn right on Temasek Ave. A ten-minute walk leads us to the Promenade MRT station, where we will board the DT line. Our destination is stop DT 18 – Telok Ayer.
Walk out of the Telok Ayer MRT station and head down its namesake street a short way to the first stop, the Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Center. This shrine, resembling a multi-level wedding cake, was constructed by Singaporean Muslims from southern India between 1828 and 1830. It was restored in 2007, and today is a testimony to one of Singapore’s strengths – its unwavering acceptance of cultural diversity.
Next, walk down in the same block as the Center to Thian Hock Keng Temple, the oldest and most important Hokkien temple in Singapore. When constructed in 1840 it was on the shoreline, on the spot where new Chinese migrants came ashore. They came looking for opportunities to better themselves and their families remaining in China, and the temple is a window into the perilous journey they faced. The boat journey was long, and hazardous. Can you imagine the relief they felt upon their safe arrival? Today, through this beautiful temple, we enjoy the expression of their gratitude to Mazu, the Taoist goddess of the sea and protector of all seamen.
The temple features a grand entrance over a high step. Side entrance gates feature brightly colored green and brown tiles, as well as Buddhist swastikas, representing good luck. Two courtyards lie beyond the gates. The temple itself lies between the courtyards and contains the temple of Ma Cho Po.
After seeing the temple, walk back up Telok Ayer, past the MRT station and make your first left on Clark Street. After two blocks, we reach a major street, South Bridge Road, and make another left. The large red arch arcing over South Bridge announces our arrival in Chinatown. A short three blocks later, we turn right and enter the pedestrian only zone of Pagoda Street.
Our destination is the Chinatown Heritage Center. There, homes and street scenes from the late-19th century and early-20th century have been faithfully recreated. What was left out were the opium-smoking dens lining Pagoda Street in the early 19th century. But hey – can’t tell every story. All in all, it’s an authentic slice of Singapore’s history made all the more fascinating by jarring contrast of the gleaming skyscrapers dominating the skyline as you look up.
After seeing the center, we have a choice – eat before or after taking in the nearby Buddha Tooth Museum? Spaced around the tailor shops, dozens of restaurants on Pagoda Street have an array of choices from Chinese seafood to Thai. Look at the menus and make a choice. Hard to go wrong here.
Now, walk back down Pagoda Street to South Bridge, turn right and go three blocks to the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple and Museum. Built relatively recently, in 2007, it is worth a visit both for its incredibly rich decorations, as well as informative exhibits on Buddhist art and culture. The architecture is a blend of Chinese elements from the Tang Dynasty as well as the Buddhist Mandala.
It was built at a cost of S$75M to contain a relic found in a collapsed stupa in Myanmar in 1980. The relic is now on the building’s fourth floor in a giant stupa weighing 3.5 tons, covered in over 700 pounds of gold. That fact is certainly impressive, but so are the intricate details in the icons covering the walls and the delicately decorated overhead lights.
Raffles Hotel and the Long Bar
Now it is time to use our smart phone and the Uber app to get us to our next destination. (See our earlier blog post for the details on how to easily make your smart phone usable here in Singapore and other cities worldwide). We are headed to an eternal symbol of Singapore – the Raffles Hotel, and specifically its Long Bar, the birthplace of that unforgettable drink, the Singapore Sling.
The hotel is an icon, one of Asia’s grande-dames. Dating from the British colonial era, it was a preferred watering hole and residence for a string of writers like Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock. Originally located off the main lobby, after major renovations to the hotel, the bar moved in 1991 to a two level spot in the new Shopping Arcade wing.
The new Long Bar carefully preserves both its colonial-era decor and atmosphere. With plantation style woven rattan chairs, dark mahogany tables, and belt driven overhead fans typical of the era, it authentically replicates its colonial past. The bar seats over two hundred in two levels, with the second accessible via the dark wood spiral staircase that dominates the center of the main room.
On your way out, be sure to make a quick stop in the Shopping Arcade at the Singapore outpost of Bangkok’s legendary Jim Thompson’s. Men’s and women’s fashions, in unmistakable timeless styles, made from the finest silk, linen, and superfine cotton, are the perfect weight for the local climate. Do not fail to stop both there, and in the hotel’s gift shop – on the first floor of the Shopping Arcade.
Now make your way to the front entrance to the hotel on Beach Road to meet your next Uber driver. Don’t think you can walk through the hotel lobby – registered guests only. But you do get to enjoy the turbaned Sikh doorman, and pretend it’s 1930 all over again.